NEW YORK—The great Anton Chekhov classic “Uncle Vanya” is now appearing as part of the Lincoln Center Festival, courtesy of the Sydney Theatre Company.
Director Tamás Ascher’s take on the play is somewhat unusual in that he has found in this basically tragic story, not only humor, but often outlandish physical manifestations of the characters’ desires. How else could the dignified and lovely Cate Blanchett be found occasionally thrashing about on the floor?
Somewhere in Russia, on a somewhat decaying farm managed by Vanya (Richard Roxburgh) and his niece, Sonya (Hayley McElhinney), a visit is paid by the actual owner, Professor Serebryakov (John Bell), and his glamorous wife, Yelena (Blanchett).
Routines fly out the window with housekeeper Marina (Jacki Weaver) complaining that lunch must now be served at dinner time. The world must now revolve around Serebryakov, who, Vanya complains, has written nothing of importance and contributed nothing to the world. Notwithstanding his opinions, Vanya has fawned on the academic for years.
Frequent visitor Dr. Astrov (Hugo Weaving), a long-time family friend, sits around chatting and drinking vodka as he awaits his next emergency call to aid the ill and suffering. An attractive and somewhat mysterious figure, he has chosen never to marry.
But now the intrusion of the visiting couple has brought to the surface emotions and longings that have lain simmering below the surface for years. Astrov makes advances toward Yelena, who, after an almost physical tussle, rebuffs him. There can be no doubt of her attraction to him, but she insists on being faithful to her husband.
In one scene with Sonya, Yelena claims that she married for love, although Serebryakov is much older than she and now requires a lot of her attention because he has some medical issues. But Yelena is one of those long-suffering loyal wives, who stays and stays and stays.
Emboldened by the presence of a friend in Yelena, Sonya approaches her to inquire of Astrov. As subtly as possible, she asks if he might find her, Sonya, attractive. But what do impulsive moves ever lead to?
Then the final straw: The professor announces that he plans to sell the farm. What will become of the folks who have considered the farm their absolute home? Vanya’s formerly repressed rage bubbles to the surface.
In a scene that is both hilarious and tragic, Vanya chases the professor around the house. The scene ends in a kind of fizzling out with Vanya made to look a fool. I am reminded of the poem that closes, “The world ends not with a bang but a whimper.” One can’t help but empathize with Vanya.
Consisting of a series of approaches and rejections, and unrequited love, the play ends with most of the characters left either pretty much where they started or sadly, even worse off.
Rounding out the outstanding cast are Sandy Gore as Maria, Vanya’s whiny mother, Anthony Phelan as the hanger-on Telegin, and Andrew Tighe as a Laborer.
The deliberately not-so-attractive farm is effectively designed by Zsolt Khell, with good, specific costumes by Györgyi Szakács, who ensures that Sonya’s costumes are appropriately dowdy and that Yelena looks fit for a fashion shoot.
The very physical acting style mentioned earlier reminds me of the style that requires that the actor make tangible and visible his feelings and needs of the moment; to “physicalize” is the term. In this production, I felt that those choices were sometimes overdone; however, the occasional, almost slapstick, staging did appear to be a great audience pleaser.
The adaptation by Andrew Upton, co-artistic director of the Sydney Theatre Company along with his wife, Blanchett, is very fine and reputed to be very true to Chekhov’s original.
In sum, this production is a most worthy and unique presentation of a renowned world classic by a major theater company not often seen in these parts.
Sydney Theatre Company
Lincoln Center Festival
New York City Center
131 West 55 St.
Tickets: visit www.nycitycenter.org or call 212-721-6500
Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes
Closes: July 28
Diana Barth writes and publishes “New Millennium,” an arts publication. For information: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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